International AIDS Conference 2014: Stepping Up the Pace

ribbonFor Michael Sidibe, Executive Director of UNAIDS, an AIDS- free world should look like this:

That world felt far away during the minute of remembrance held at the opening session of the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia in late July to mourn the colleagues lost in the Malaysian Airways crash. The tragedy killed a leading AIDS researcher and others headed to the conference from Amsterdam.

Acting President of the International AIDS Society, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, addressed the 14,000 leaders, activists, policy makers and researchers from over 200 nations present at the conference. “Tonight, let our minute’s silence represent our sadness, our anger and solidarity,” Barré-Sinoussi said.

Held every two years by the International AIDS Society (IAS), the International AIDS Conference is the largest gathering of professionals and activists in the field. “Stepping Up the Pace” was selected as the 2014 conference’s theme to recognize what the international community is facing in charting the global response to HIV/AIDS.

The 2014 conference examined global, national and regional trends of the epidemic and provided a space for open and critical dialogue about the past, present and future efforts to halt the spread of HIV. The AIDS 2014 agenda featured a variety of session types, including abstract-driven presentations, discussions of new technologies, exhibitions and interactive activities, all driven by the opportunity for information sharing and collaboration.

Sessions at the conference covered topics like the criminalization of AIDS, drug policy reform, access to antiretroviral therapy, overcoming gender inequality, the intersection of health and human rights, youth engagement and many more.

Former U.S. president and chair of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Bill Clinton, advocated for the world to “scale up” its treatment of HIV, particularly for women and children. Clinton acknowledged the complex nature of living in an “age of interdependence” and how it greatly effects who has access to healthcare. “We’re going into the future together whether we like it or not,” said Clinton.

Clinton was surprised that, in this day and age, stigma and prejudice is on the rise and stated there must be a “renewed effort” to combat this roadblock in order to sustain global efforts. Capacity building, sharing best practices, and the development of super efficient systems are what Clinton pointed to as being critical elements for the road ahead. He praised the work of scientists and researchers and encouraged the packed auditorium and international audience that an AIDS-free generation is, “just over the horizon, we just have to step up the pace.”

Sir Bob Geldof, co-founder of Live Aid and an anti-poverty activist, criticized wealthy nations for their “preposterous reluctance” to fund HIV programs in developing countries. Geldof was not afraid to name names and called out the conference host country, Australia, for cutting its contribution by $7.6 billion over the next five years. Geldof called the lack of financial support for science “disgraceful,” particularly because he believes the epidemic is in its “last mile.”

The conference’s AIDS 2014 Melbourne Declaration affirmed that non-discrimination is fundamental for successful public health programs and the international response to HIV. The declaration states that, to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, there cannot be a culture of criminalization and stigmatization surrounding HIV/AIDS and that the criminalization of AIDS will only drive the epidemic, undermine existing and future HIV programs and leave marginalized communities more vulnerable to institutionalized violence.

In the closing session of the conference, co-chair Prof. Sharon Lewin called for more active initiatives and cooperation in the international community. She emphasized the importance of individualized approaches to treating HIV/AIDS in key hot spots like sub-Saharan Africa, which remained a focus throughout the five-day conference. Lewin emphasized the conference’s theme and proposed an urgent call to action that acknowledges both the funding and collective action needed to reach an AIDS-free generation by 2030.

Chris Beyrer, incoming president of IAS and its first openly gay leader, stated that the two biggest challenges the global HIV response will face over the next century will be the lack of access to treatment for millions worldwide and the new wave of discriminatory laws and policies that actively criminalize AIDS and exclude people from treatment and care.

Looking forward to the 2016 AIDS conference that will take place in Durban, South Africa, Professor Olive Shisana focused on sub-Saharan Africa and the disproportionate burden of the epidemic the region shoulders. “The past three decades of HIV/AIDS has taught us that the disease doesn’t discriminate but that people and governments do…while so much has changed, too much has stayed the same.”